Urban renaissance -- one crêpe at a time

Green shoots in the Motor City -- powered by many smaller engines
Written by Joe McKendrick, Contributing Writer

What happens to a community that has relied for decades on a single, powerful industry when that industry collapses or fades away? What needs to take its place to provide for a sustainable economic future? That's the scenario we see unfolding in Detroit, a city devastated by the collapse of the auto industry.

In previous posts, we talked about a radical idea to revive Detroit with agriculture, as well as Michigan's efforts to boost tourism within the state. We also looked at how New Orleans is seeing a revival thanks to the forces of entrepreneurship.

A new report in the New York Times looks at how the same rising force may be the best hope for Detroit's future. Amidst the urban decay, desolation, and crime, some forward-thinking entrepreneurs have set up businesses as diverse as theaters and crêperies.

The article describes some other green shoots springing up around Motown:

Some new businesses...Despite the recession — and in some cases because of it — small businesses are budding around Detroit in one of the more surprising twists of the downturn. Some new businesses like the Burton are scratching by. Others have already grown beyond the initial scope of their business plans, juggling hundreds of customers and expanding into new sites.

In many cases, the ventures make up in spunk what may lack in resources and amenities. For example, a group of investors recently opened the Burton Theater, the city’s only independent foreign movie house, in an abandoned school auditorium on an unlighted stretch near downtown.  (And since the theater opened, the city turned the streetlights back on.) According to the report, while the theater's popularity has been mixed, the owners say the project was as much about about creating a more livable community as it is making money.

However, other startups are profitable. Curl Up and Dye, a retro-themed hair salon, was established a year ago. It now serves 1,500 customers. In the same neighborhood, a former French teacher, recently opened the second location of Good Girls Go to Paris creperie. Another startup, Breezecab, was started from the owner's severance package and employs rickshaws to ferry workers and conventioneers around downtown.

Academia has also gotten into the act as well in promoting entrepreneurship. The report notes that Wayne State University runs a business incubator housed in a former auto plant, and now counts 150 newly hatched companies within its space.

Many beleaguered communities now recognize that the road to rebirth will be paved by entrepreneurs. Of course, you shouldn’t have to be a city ravaged by the loss of its industrial base or a hurricane to embrace this ethic. Does your company need revitalization, or need to be injected with a new spirit of innovation? Organizations struggling with flatlined growth and calcified corporate cultures can also experience rebirth and new growth by unleashing the entrepreneurial spirit.

This post was originally published on Smartplanet.com

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